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Lack of leadership challenges world order in 2017

Nationalism looks set to further diminish the multilateral and inclusive institutions of global governance
Gulf News

During 2017, the existing structure of the global community will face the challenge surviving under world leaders who do not care about it. Those who support the multilateral and inclusive system, under which the human race has flourished for more than 70 years, lack the necessary charisma to reignite a global fight for liberalism and tolerance. The global institutions have become discredited. The United Nations Security Council used to be the cockpit of global governance where superpowers met openly, but today, no one really cares what is said at the UN as most great powers choose to act with their allies to achieve what they want. The World Trade Organisation and its predecessor GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) have done more to raise global prosperity than any other organisation, but today it is unable to advance as nations refuse to make the essential compromises to achieve open trade. Nato dropped its original sole mandate to defend the democracies of North Atlantic to become an American expeditionary force, getting so confused as to spend more than 10 years in Afghanistan.

These troubled institutions now face multiple assaults from global leaders with very different ideas. United States President-elect Donald Trump takes office later this month and he looks set to demolish the established way of handling international relations. Trump has already made clear that he will be firmly isolationist and pay little attention to the international bodies that the US has led for many decades. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants his country to become the superpower that the Soviet Union was, and given Russia’s economic weakness, he has extended Moscow’s military reach to fight his way to an expanded sphere of influence. 2017 will see him build a secure Russian alliance with Syria that may last for decades, giving Russia a vital Mediterranean port and his new sponsorship of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar may give Russia a useful second base in the Mediterranean and a toe-hold in Africa.

Leadership transition

Chinese President Xi Jinping has a long-term plan to build China’s global dominance that will only include the current multilateral institutions if they change their way of operating to become more China-friendly, but in 2017, Xi will spend much of the year managing the five-yearly leadership transition as he strengthens his position as China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong. Europe will also be crippled by internal debates as Germany and France go to the polls with a grave danger that the liberal centre (right or left) will be forced to play to the nationalist and xenophobic mob that has gathered strength. All through 2017, Britain will struggle to accept its diminished global significance as it expends all its diplomatic thought on how to leave the European Union with an additional problem of a ruling party that will be hopelessly split between the Hards and Softs, depending on their view of how the UK should deal with Europe in the future.

The Middle East may see more stability after years of anarchy, but that stability will be based on military imposition of law and order and any inclusivity will be regarded as a luxury that can be jettisoned. The Iraqi assault on Mosul should eventually defeat Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), but the narrow and sectarian government in Baghdad will be in danger of failing (again) to ensure the inclusive governance that will attract the largely Sunni population of Mosul and northern Iraq. The defeated Daesh will revert back to its deeply abhorrent terrorist origins and a wave of gross bombings are likely to shock all of us.

Death of the Geneva process

In Syria, the government has been given the advantage by its Russian and Iranian allies and it may be able to extend its territorial reach during 2017. But it is unlikely to manage a conclusive win against all comers, even if it does retake Idlib province. The Geneva Process has been killed by the Turkish-Russian-Iranian alliance backing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, but there remains a need for an interim process and inclusive governance if Syria is ever to find peace. 2017 will reveal if Al Assad has the imagination to reach out and offer that or revert to his regime’s more standard procedure of imprisonment and torture.

Yemen may have one of the wars that sees more genuine calm as the Saudi-led coalition increases its gains in the south, eliminating Al Qaida and restoring good governance. This will be a very different story from the war that looks likely to continue on the north where Al Houthi rebels continue to hold out for extravagant terms, backed by their Iranian allies.

Iran faces a presidential election in which incumbent President Hassan Rouhani will be severely challenged as his nuclear deal with the international world is failing to bring any economic benefit — thanks to the international banks’ refusal to handle any payment from Iran. So far, the Obama administration has not challenged this position and a Trump administration will certainly not help. So the internationalist Rouhani is likely to lose to a much more aggressive isolationist.

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